Both the world of baseball and the world of literature has lost a titanic figure. Jim Bouton, an ace for the late dynasty, pennant-winning Yankees, an outcast on the hapless 1969 Seattle Pilots, and the author of “Ball Four,” arguably the greatest baseball book of all time, has died at the age of 80. Bouton had been suffering from cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which is linked to dementia, for the past several years.
Bouton was born in New Jersey in 1939 and was raised in Chicago before going on to pitch at Western Michigan University. The Yankees liked what they saw and gave Bouton a $30,000 bonus to sign in 1958. A combination of good pitching and some untimely injuries to established Yankees pitchers allowed Bouton to make the defending World Series champs out of spring training in 1962.
Bouton pitched in 36 games that season, serving as a swingman, to modest results, but he did not pitch in the Yankees’ World Series victory over the Giants that October. He truly broke out in 1963, starting 30 of the 40 games in which he appeared, compiling a record of 21-7 and posting a fantastic 2.53 ERA. He’d earn All-Star honors that year and started Game 3 of the World Series. Bouton had a strong outing in that game, allowing only one run in seven innings, but was beaten by an even better Don Drysdale who tossed a three-hit shutout as the Dodgers swept the Yankees.
Bouton was a workhorse in 1964, leading the American League with 37 games started and finishing 18-13 with a 3.02 ERA while tossing 271.1 innings. That October Bouton started two World Series games, winning both of them, pushing his postseason record to 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA. Despite his heroics, however, the Yankees lost to the St. Louis Cardinals four games to three. The loss in Game 7 ended a Yankees dynasty which had lasted over 40 years. It also spelled the end of Jim Bouton’s time as one of the game’s top starting pitchers.
Bouton showed up to spring training in 1965 with a sore arm. It never got better and he, and the Yankees, had a poor year. Bouton bounced back in 1966 — he pitched in fewer than half of the innings he had lodged at his peak but they were effective innings — but the Yankees didn’t. Bouton began the 1967 season with New York but was demoted to the minors. While there he wrote his first published article, for “Sport” magazine, chronicling the life of minor leaguers. Bouton made it back to the Yankees at the end of that season and the beginning of 1968 but had his contract sold to the expansion Seattle Pilots in the middle of the year. As the Pilots would not begin play until 1969, it meant more time in the minors for Bouton. Late in the 1968 season Bouton, still suffering from arm problems and a loss of velocity, began to rely almost exclusively on a knuckleball which he had previously only featured as a “show-me” pitch in his prime.
As Bouton’s time with the Yankees wore on his reputation as an eccentric grew. Of course, that status as an “eccentric” was a relative thing. To most people outside of baseball, Bouton would’ve come off merely as an intelligent, thoughtful and occasionally provocative guy. The guy who saw things a bit differently than others and who wasn’t afraid to speak up. We all know people like that and, while they may make waves once in a while, they’re not out of the ordinary. In the conformist world of baseball, however, Bouton was something of an oddball, and an often unwelcome one at that. He asked uncomfortable questions of Yankees management, didn’t keep his head down and keep quiet when he was a young player and did not hesitate to speak his mind to the press. A press which, since almost the dawn of baseball history, had worked hard to keep the bad behavior and excesses of ballplayers a closely-guarded secret.
Bouton may have been considered an eccentric in New York, but he’d cement his status as baseball’s ultimate outsider when he got to Seattle. He did so by virtue of a written and audio diary he kept during his season with the ragtag expansion Pilots in 1969. That diary, with some heavy organizational and editing help from New York baseball writer Leonard Shecter, would become “Ball Four.”
“Ball Four” gave fans a look at a side of baseball that was previously unseen by anyone but the deepest insiders. In it Bouton wrote about the pranks, dirty jokes, and drunken womanizing rampant among baseball players, with special emphasis on the doings of Mickey Mantle and his former Yankees teammates. He talked about drug use — most notably the use of amphetamine or “greenies” — of players. He talked about fights between teammates and players and fights with management. He afforded particular detail on his disagreements with own manager, Joe Schultz, and his pitching coach Sal Maglie, casting both of them in less-than-glowing, but invariably humorous terms. He also talked about cheating in the game such as ball-scuffing and sign-stealing. Often overlooked but easily the most affecting part of “Ball Four,” however, was Bouton’s chronicle of his own comeback as a major league pitcher, in which he wrote with brutal honesty about his fears and doubts about his ability to make it in the big leagues again.
Bouton was traded to the Houston Astros toward the end of the 1969 season and, when things were all said and done, he had had serviceable year on the mound, appearing in 80 games out of the bullpen. All things being equal, Bouton likely would’ve been able to pitch for many more years as a rubber-armed reliever or swingman. And he did manage to break camp with the Astros in 1970 as part of the team’s rotation. All things weren’t equal, however. The first excerpts of “Ball Four” appeared in “Look” magazine in May of that year and they created a firestorm. The book was published in June and all hell broke loose.
Upon reading “Ball Four” — or, at the very least, being told what was in it by someone who had read it — baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called the book “detrimental to baseball,” and tried to force Bouton to sign a statement saying that the book was a work of fiction. Bouton refused. While the league could do nothing officially to sanction Bouton, his teammates and other players around the league felt betrayed and turned on him. Most of the shunning was done in private, but not all. Pete Rose famously yelled “f**k you, Shakespeare!” at Bouton from the dugout when the Astros faced the Reds. Some baseball writers of the day denounced Bouton, with legendary New York writer Dick Young calling Bouton and Shecter “social lepers.”
Being ostracized may have been endurable on its own, but Bouton was pitching poorly too. That, combined with the fame of the book and newfound professional opportunities occasioned by its success led Bouton to retire from the game in July of 1970.
Bouton did not disappear, of course. He soon took a job as a sportscaster for top-rated WABC TV in New York. In 1971 he wrote a followup to “Ball Four” called “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally,” which discussed the fallout to his first book and added some new baseball stories for good measure. In 1973 Bouton began an acting career, playing the heavy, Terry Lennox, in Robert Altman’s now classic adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.” In 1976 CBS made a TV show out of “Ball Four.” It was a sitcom, starring Bouton as a character loosely based on himself, with many of the sorts of episodes described in the book ported into a sitcom format. It was a flop and it was quickly cancelled after only five episodes.
Throughout this time Bouton continued to throw his knuckleball in amateur leagues. That led to him spending several weeks in 1975 pitching for the Single-A Portland Mavericks. In 1977 he made a full-blown comeback, pitching for the White Sox’ Double-A affiliate in Knoxville. After being released he pitched for Durango in the Mexican League. Then he was back with the Mavericks. In 1978 one maverick met another when Bouton met Braves owner Ted Turner. Turner took a shine to Bouton and signed him to the Braves’ Southern League affiliate in Savannah. There Bouton started 21 games and finished with an 11-9 record and a 2.82 ERA, helping Savannah to the league title. The Braves gave him a September callup at the age of 39. He’d pitch five games that month. They weren’t good games — he posted a 4.97 ERA — but Bouton had made it back to the big leagues. He retired again, saying that he had nothing left to prove.
Bouton would spend most of the rest of his life in the public eye, writing more books and updating “Ball Four” three more times. He, along with Portland Mavericks teammate Rob Nelson, helped invent Big League Chew bubblegum, which they sold to Wrigley and which you can still buy today. Bouton would continue to tinker with various inventions, speak publicly and devote himself to various causes over the years.
In 1997, Bouton’s daughter Laurie was killed in an automobile accident, an event which sent Bouton spiraling into depression. The following year his son Michael wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, telling of his father’s ordeal and asking that the Yankees forgive Bouton for his book and invite him to play in the 1998 Old Timers Game. The Yankees did so, leading to an emotional reunion with his fans, his old ballpark, and many of his former teammates, most of whom had since forgiven him or did so upon his return. He faced only one batter but — in a nod to a quirk of his from his youngest days as a Yankee — his cap fell off of his head as he delivered his first pitch. Bouton wrote about the death of his daughter, his struggle with depression and his return to Yankee Stadium in the final update to “Ball Four.”
Bouton’s life was a rich one. He was a star athlete, sure, but he was also a writer. He was an actor. He was a family man. He was an activist. He was an inventor. He was a humorist and a raconteur. Baseball, however, caught him early and, though he’d alienate himself from the game and go on to do other things, he always came back to it, in body or in spirit. And he knew, nearly 50 years before he died, that it would always be thus. He said so explicitly in the most famous passage in “Ball Four.” Indeed, it may be the most famous passage in all of baseball literature:
“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
Rest in Peace, Jim Bouton. The game had never seen your like before and never will again.
(special thanks to Mark Armour of the Society for American Baseball Research, whose 2011 biography of Bouton served as the basis for a great deal of this article)